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Early Settlement and Surveys Along the River Thames in Kent County

A synopsis of a paper by

MR. McGEORGE, in his valued paper, turns to the field notes of Patrick McNiff, the pioneer surveyor, who made a survey along the La Tranche (Thames) River, in 1790 and 1791. He states that McNiff entered the river from Lake St. Clair, and found at the entrance, and for six miles up, (about the present location of St. Peter’s Church on Lot 1, Tilbury East) extensive meadows and marshes with a few scattered trees. At the left of the entrance (the Dover side) the marshes and meadows extended N.N.E. as far as could be seen, on the right they were confined to much shorter limits. Eight miles up the river McNiff encountered the first settlement on the south bank, and speaking of the land from that point to the Forks (the junction of the river and McGregor’s Creek) McNiff says:

"The land is very good on each side, but on the south side, in general, up to near the Forks the wood land does not extend back from the River more than thirty acres, in many places not so far, then commences a plain and marsh. On the north side the plain and marsh do not come so near the river.

From the commencement of the first settlement on the river up to near the Forks no second concession or line of lots can be made without placing the settlers in the plains or marsh.

At the Forks, the south branch (now McGregor’s Creek) has nine feet of water for nine hundred yards, then becomes shoal, this being a good place for a mill, being narrow with high banks. 120 chains up it divides into three branches, the one coming from the north east, the other from the south, and the third from the southwest."

Mr. McGeorge identifies the last mentioned point as a little above the Maple Leaf Cemetery, where Indian Creek enters.

Mr. McGeorge quotes McNiff as noting that the land between the branches (presumably between the Thames and McGregor’s Creek) was formerly cultivated by the Indians, and that Thomas Clark, a millwright, living on the river, had the lumber for a mill to be erected at the branch, and from later records it appears that this mill was erected near what is now the eastern limits of Chatham.

It is not known how far McNiff went with his survey but Mr. McGeorge is of the opinion that he went about half way across Howard Township to a point opposite the present location of Thamesville. From Chatham up to the end of the survey McNiff found the banks from 18 to 20 feet high, the land of good quality, and the timber black walnut, cherry, hard maple and hickory. He states that there were no streams coming into the river to form a harbour and no possibility of hauling boats over the land.

In April 1791 McNiff apparently encountered a spring freshet, as he reported 8 feet of water and a current of 8 knots an hour at a point where he was told in dry season loaded canoes could scarcely pass.

Referring further to conditions above the Forks, McNiff states that on the north bank, a small distance from the river, the land appeared to be marsh with small ponds, and he thought, from the uncommon attraction of the needle, there were large quantities of iron ore at that point.

McNiff states that the distance from the end of his survey to the first Indian village was said to be 75 miles as the river runs and to the second village of the Delawares 87 miles.

McNiff seems to have been impressed with the location of the present City of Chatham, as a village site, and his representations were probably responsible for the setting aside in 1795 of a Town Plot and Military Reserve at this point.

Mr. McGeorge explains that settlement started along the Thames and gradually worked back from the river because at first only the comparatively narrow strip of high land adjoining the river on each side was dry enough to be of any use, and land back from the river could only be made available as it was drained, and the fact that much of the land, particularly west of Chatham, was very little higher than the lake, made recovery and development slow and difficult.

Traveling for much of the year could only be done by water or over the ice, and McNiff seems to have laid out the lots fronting on the river in the Townships of Dover East, Chatham, Raleigh, Harwich and parts of Howard and Camden, but apparently did not lay out any lots from the mouth of the river up to Raleigh and Tilbury East Townline, because the land was so low and wet.

After surveying along the Thames McNiff worked westerly along Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, and then back east again along Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Following McNiff’s survey of 1790 - 1791, D. W. Smith, Acting Surveyor General for Upper Canada, issued the following instructions for a further survey along the Thames:

"Niagara, 12th Novem’r 1792

Instructions for a Person to be employed in Surveying the River La Tranche, now the Thames.


You will proceed to the mouth of the River La Tranche now called the Thames, and there commence your Survey by exploring well the bar at the entrance of the River, making such transverse and angular soundings of its depth in water as will enable you to protract an accurate chart thereof with the bearings of the Banks and Channels relatively to the Land. Having executed that part of your business, you will proceed up the said River, following its general and main stream, and note most minutely as you go the courses of its several windings as well as the general course of the River. But as the more particular object of your mission is to ascertain with precision the depth of water in the said River and the practicability of a Batteau being able to descend it in the Spring, and from what place, you will pay every attention towards discharging this part of your Trust in minutiae and detail by making repeated traverses across the River in oblique directions, sounding as you go, noting the rapids and their depth of water with the directions they take, as well as any remarkable rocks or large stones that may appear above the water, or may be sunken, but just below its surface.

As the object of your survey is to acquire information beyond the more local knowledge of the River’s course, you will not only report on the difficulties which may obstruct the navigation at present, but you will state your ideas on the practicability, ease, difficulty, and mode of removing them.

You will be particular in your description of the spot pointed out as proper for a Town at The Forks, as well as the fittest place for wharfs and the depth of water there would be along side of them.

The greatest variation of compass in or near the Third Township will also draw your attention, enquiry, remarks and report.

Having ascended the River till the stream becomes so trifling as no longer to merit your observation, and having gained at all events the Upper Deleware Village, you will return as expeditiously as possible to Detroit by the route you came, unless you should be led so far up the River as to approach the waters of the Ouse (formerly the Grand River), in which case it is at your option to return by the Mohawk village and so by this place. Should you adopt the latter, you will continue and connect your work by a cursory survey from the River La Tranche till you strike the Grand River, and from thence in the same manner to Lake Ontario in which it will be unnecessary to either mark or blaze. Mr. Jones, the Deputy Surveyor for the Home District, having lately made report of a survey in which he states the Source of the River La Tranche and Grand River to be nearly connected, you have enclosed a sketch of that survey.

Your attention will be drawn also to the quality of the land over which you pass, the nature of the soil, and the growth and species of its Timber; and you will be particular in noting the direction of any Indian paths which you may cross or come near on your way; reporting the result of your inquiries and observations on this subject, particularly if you have reason to believe that any such paths lead to Lakes Huron, Erie or Ontario, or the Rivers that fall into them; the Springs and their qualities, conveniences for Mill Sites, etc., will all be comprehended. within your notice and report.

The person employed for this service if not already in Government pay and employ will be on the same footing with respect to salary per diem pro tempore as the Deputy Surveyors are, and, if he does not get a Ration of Provision from the King’s Store, one quarter Dollar per day will he allowed him in lieu thereof.

If troops are furnished from the Garrison of Detroit for this duty, His Excellency Lord Dorchester has approved of the rates by which they are to be paid. Should it be necessary to employ others, any number not exceeding eight may be hired for that purpose and in both instances two Pack horses.

The civilians and horses on the following terms, viz:

6 ordinary or axe men 1s/6d Halfx per day each
2 chain bearers 2/ Halfx do do do
2 horses 3/ Half x do do do

If the men’s ration is not furnished from the King’s Stores, one-quarter dollar will be allowed for one Ration pr. day which the surveyor is to deliver to his party. This Ration to consist of :—

1 1/2 lb. of Flour;
12 oz. of Pork;
1/2 Pint Pease.

Provided the Surveyor by accepting the above sum in manner of contract considers it as covering all charges such as Batteaus, canoes, axes, tomahawks, camp kettles, oilcloths, tents, bags, etc., etc., which the Contractors readily furnished heretofore on receiving that sum for the men’s


If the Surveyor is furnished with a Batteau or Canoes, Axes, Tomahawks, Camp Kettles, Oilcloths, Tents, Bags, etc., etc., from the King’s Stores, and furnished merely the afore-mentioned Ration, then he will be allowed only Ten pence Halifax for each Ration as above recited.

The Party is to be immediately discharged on returning to Detroit, and should they return by Niagara, nothing more will be allowed while they are on board of ship from Fort Erie to Detroit than their Ration and Half—pay.

The accounts are to be made up agreeable to Forms annexed, and transmitted to the Surveyor Generals Office which at present is at Lieut. Smith’s quarters in the Fort of Niagara. The Receiver General may be drawn on at Thirty-one days sight for so much on account as is the amount of the Expense authorized which will be answered to its extent, if in conformity to these instructions.

The very small quantity of Stationery which can be expended will be admitted on account.

Submitted by

(signed) D. W. SMITH,

Act’g Surv. General.
Surveyor General’s Office
Upper Canada, 12 Nov’r, 1792

PS. Navy Hall, 15 Novem’r, 1792

His Excellency, the Governor, having this day perused the foregoing Instructions, desires that the Surveyor may in all events return by the Mohawk village and so to this place, and supposes the Batteau, Horses and some of the Men, may return by the River Thames as the Surveyor’s trip will be short after he leaves that River.

(Signed) D. W. S."

McNiff appears to have made the survey, as in May 1793 he reported that navigation to the Upper Forks (now London) was quite practicable with the erection of one or two locks.

After 1794 McNiff appears to have done no further work along the River Thames.

In 1795 Abram Iredell laid out part of Chatham Town— site, comprising 400 acres of Harwich and 200 acres of Raleigh, and in the same year was instructed to survey three concessions deep from the river in the Townships of Howard, Harwich, Raleigh, Dover, Chatham and Camden, and to survey a road as straight as possible between Chatham and the Point aux Pins (Rond Eau) on Lake Erie. One interesting point in connection with his instructions was in reference to the establishment of Magistral lines which were lines tangent to the River, designed to govern the position of the concession lines and to prevent the broken front lots on the river being made less than 200 acres, that amount having been pledged by the Government in the grants of the lots to the settlers.

Further surveying in the beginning of the nineteenth century is described by Mr. McGeorge as follows:

"In December 1803, Iredell was instructed to complete the surveys of the Townships of Chatham and Dover, and early the next year another surveyor, William Hambly, was instructed to join Mr. Iredell in the said work. This he did, and in 1804 surveyed the tier of lots between the Bear Line Road and the Chatham and Dover Townline from the 3rd Concession Road which had been run by Iredell to the Sydenham River, and also parts of the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th Concessions west of the Bear Line, all in the Township of Dover. Neither Hambly or Iredell apparently did any more work in this locality, and in fact the surveys of Chatham and Dover Townships were not completed until 1809 and 1810 when Thos. Smith surveyed Dover West and completed the surveys of Dover East and Chatham Township proper (except for a block of Lots called the Pain Court Block, Dover, which was surveyed by C. Rankin in 1830). The Gore of Chatham, which was part of Sombra Township, or "Shawanese" Township, was surveyed by Smith in 1820.

After the war of 1812, the work of survey in the section which we are considering was taken up by M. Burwell who in the period of years from 1821 to 1831 surveyed parts of Tilbury East, Raleigh, Harwich, Howard, Orford and Zone. In 1838, part of Zone was surveyed by Surveyor Mcintosh, and still other parts in 1845 by B. Springer.

The front portion of Orford seems to have been reserved for the Indians, the Reserve extending the full width of the Township (something over six miles) and reaching from the River for about the same distance. The Reserve was afterwards cut down, and about 1857, a surveyor named F. Lynch, surveyed the land adjoining the Reserve as we have it today.

In tracing these surveys I have dealt chiefly with the surveys in the portions of the Townships towards the River Thames, and it is probably necessary to point out that in the portions of the Townships near Lake Erie, surveys and settlement also took place at a very early date. The explanation of this is found again in the physical conditions. As we all know, we have in our County a high ridge of land along Lake Erie. This land was dry and encouraged early settlement. From the ridge, the lands fall rapidly toward the River Thames, but when within a mile or so of the Thames, it rises again to the strip of comparatively high land adjoining the river. The water from the south for all the territory to the west of the area draining into McGregor’s Creek had to find its way westerly to the plains and marshes which adjoin the river near its mouth in Tilbury East."

Mr. McGeorge speaks of the dangers and difficulties of surveying in the early days, occasioned by treacherous ice in winter, marshy ground in summer, fever and ague, and mosquitoes and black flies. The rights of the squatters and settlers on the ground prior to the survey had to be taken into account, and instructions from the Surveyor General’s Office had to be followed.

William Hambly kept a diary, entries in which record that he started May 9, 1804, from York (Toronto), via Hamilton to Niagara and Queenstown by boat, thence over the Portage to Chippewa where travel in boats was resumed to Fort Erie and along the shore of Lake Erie to Rond Eau, where the boat was damaged in beaching it, and he set out across country, arriving at Lake St. Clair on June 11, 1804. His surveying party was ill most of the summer and Hambly himself closes the story of the summer’s work by an entry made in the diary on November 3, 1804, in which he says he sent his party on to York, discharged as per order, but he himself was unable to proceed. He suffered from rheumatism.

Mr. McGeorge states that the remuneration received by the surveyors was pitifully small and they were none too sure of their jobs.

Coming to the records of early settlement, Mr. McGeorge says:

"We find some difficulty in fixing the arrival of the first settlers. Writing to the Surveyor-General in May 1791, McNiff states that in the Townships surveyed on the River he found twenty-eight families settled in front, some with considerable improvements. This would indicate that the settlers had been there some little time, and it does not seem unreasonable to put 1775 or 1780 as the date of first settlement.

On the plan of the River Thames compiled from the surveys by McNiff and Jones (the latter having made surveys east of the locality covered by McNiff’s surveys), the locations of twenty-seven houses are shown between the present location of Chatham and the mouth of the River, nineteen of these being on the south side, and eight on the north. On going up the River on the south side, we have first an empty house, then the two houses of Charon, both empty, then Richard Surplex, then an empty house, then Richard Merry, then John Peck, Jr., then St. Carty, then Robert Peck, then Eliza Peck, then John Peck, Sr., then a Canadian, then Daniel Fields, then Samuel Newkirk, then Thos. Williams, then Chas. McCormick, then Isaac Dolsen, and lastly two empty houses. On the north side we have an empty house first, then Thos. Holmes, then Meldrum and Park, then Arthur McCormick, then Sarah Wilson, then a Negro, then Mathew Dolsen, then an empty house, and finally Clark, a millwright.

In 1793, Governor Simcoe and suite, accompanied by Assistant-Sur.-General D. W. Smith, made a trip from Detroit over land to Niagara. Smith kept a minute diary of the trip and in his diary there are some slight references to settlers.

The first day, February 23rd, the party went by "slays" to Dolsen’s on the River La Tranche, which was about forty or fifty miles from Detroit. They stayed there the next day which was Sunday and prayers were read, some forty people attending, including no doubt the party.

They set off of the 25th by carioles and traveled twelve miles direct and sixteen as the river ran, then started on foot, and about noon reached "Jack Carpenter’s Cabin." They crossed to the north side and traveled nine or ten miles to the Moravian Settlement.

From the Moravian Settlement they pushed on, arriving at Niagara on the 10th of March.

Iredell in traversing along the River in Harwich in 1797 notes the following places: M. Holmer’s, Turner’s, McCargan’s, Mericle’s, Wheaton’s, Gibson’s, Traxler’s, French’s, Jones’ and Shepply’s.

Thos. Smith in his traverse along the River Thames in 1809 in Chatham Township notes the following names in connection with lots 23 and 24 : McWilliams, Daniel Ransom, Jackman or Turner. Between lots 15 and 16 he notes a boundary by possession but gives no names. At the boundary line between lots 10 and 11 he left his work to go to his provision depot at Blackburn’s. When he came opposite McGregor’s Creek, he refers to it as Clark’s Mill branch, thus indicating that the mill to which reference was made before by McNiff had been constructed.

If we refer to the records of the Land Board at Detroit, it is evident that there were many requests for land along the Thames River before any surveys were made, in fact the surveys were the result of numerous requests for land.

In there were nineteen petitions for allotments along the Thames, the names being Charles McCormic, David England, and consort, Arthur McCormic, John Wheaton, John Scheifflein, Schofield and consort, Matthew Dolsen, Thos. McCrea, Peter Shoule, Daniel Field, Edward Watson, James Rice, Isaac Dolsen, Coleman Roe, Wm. Duggan, Thos. Smith, Robert Dowler, Hezekiah Wilcox and Sara Montour.

In 1790, we find sixty-six applicants whose names are as follows : Thomas Clarke, David Lind, William Scott, Thos. Williams, Samuel Newkirk, Richard Earld, Thos. Parsons, Robert McPherson, James McPherson, John McPherson, Peter McPherson, Jonas Fox, Philip Fox, Frederick Arnold, Frederick Arnold, Jr., Arnold Spinsters, Lewis Arnold, Steffle Arnold, John Arnold, William Cissney, Children of John Cissney, John Cissney, James Cissney, Joseph Cissney, Jaspar Brown, Hugh Holmes, David McKirgan, Richard Merry, George Fields, Robert Williams, John Welsh, Jacob Guont, John Flin, Josh. Springfield, John Barbeous, William Searl, Joseph Elain, Peter Malor, Richard Connor, Jordan Ivory, James Ronph, Simon Girty, James and Geo. Girty, Jacob Harsen, Etienne Tremblay, Wm. Montforton, Adhemor St. Martin, Simon Schorlcroft, Patrick McGulphin, Chas. Gouin, Marie Josh. Gouin, John Laughton, Ens. Hrn. Hoy, Alex. Cox, Capn. Lamottre, Mat. Gibson, Thos. Kelly, Andrew Hamilton, Peter Faucher, John Williams, Jacob Marnele, Robert Gill, Patrick O’Flaherty, P. L. J. de Charbert, Wm. Chambers.

In 1791 there were thirty-six applications, the names being: Wm. Boyle, A. Grant, R. Understone, J. Reynolds, E. McCarthy, A. Woolche, John Hembrow, Reny Campeau, James Hobbs, John Carrel, John Reynolds, Robert Surphlit, Marianne L'Esperance, Wm. Crawford, Samuel Edge, John Pike, Morris Wilcox, Peter Barril, Charles Beaubieu, Jno. Dodomead, Henry Motsford. Charles Boulange, Wyndal Wagaly, Robert Bedford, Fred Harboth, Coleman Roe, Julius Raboli. Frederick Raboli, Valentine Oiler, Jacob Oiler, John Lawler, Thos. Jones, Louis Arnold, George Lyon, John Sparksman, John Killen.

In 1791, there is given a list of names of persons called Loyalists and serving in the King’s Regiment and Col. Butler’s Rangers to whom monthly food allowances were made. Those along the River (Col. Butler’s Rangers) were: Samuel Newkirk, farmer ; Peter Shank, farmer Jacob Guont, laborer ; Thomas Parsons. laborer ; John Wright, laborer ; Nat Lewis, laborer ; Thos. Williams, blacksmith John Goon, laborer ; Wm. Harper, laborer. The Loyalists were. Hezekiah Wilcox, farmer; Josiah Wilcox, laborer, Hugh Holmes, farmer ; John Pike, farmer Robert Pike, farmer; Robert Simplex, farmer ; Garr Brown, farmer ; Thomas Clark, farmer ; Jno. Hazard, laborer ; Jacob Hill, farmer ; John Gordon, farmer.

In the town of Chatham the first house was built by Abram Tredell some time before the lot being granted to him in 1798. Two lots were granted in 1801 to Alex. and Chas. Askin, and in 1802, twenty-six lots were granted to: John Martin, Gregor McGregor, Jas. McGregor, John Laughton, two lots, Alex. Harrow, John Sparkman, John Little, Wm. Forsyth, Alex. Duff, Matt. Donovan, John Donovan, J. Wilson and J. Fraser, Rich. Donovan, Wm. Fleming, Jas. Fleet, Wm. Harper, Geo. Ward, Antoine Pelletier, Jacques Pelletier two lots, John Askin, Matt. Dolsen, Wm. Shepard and George Leith. in 1806 a lot was granted to John Sharp. In 1824, a few lots were granted to M. Burwell; in 1830, Lot A (now Bank of Montreal corner) was granted to Stephen Brock; in 1831, Lot B to P. P. Lacroix, and in 1834, several other grants were made. In spite of the fact that grants had been made earlier, the first real settlement in Chatham commenced about 1826.

The first minute book of the Township of Raleigh contains a census of the territory covered, comprising Raleigh, Tilbury East and West and Dover. The total shows 110 men, 105 women, 42 males over 15. 45 females over 15, 176 boys, 147 girls; hirelings, men 31, women 7. The list gives the families and the number in each, including hirelings and of the 110 families, 75 seem to be French.

In conclusion I might point out that the records in reference to surveys are on file in the Survey’s Branch, Parliament Buildings, Toronto. Some of the information in regard to the Town of Chatham is given in the Kent Almanac of 1881, published by James Soutar. The first minute book of the Township of Raleigh is in the hands of the Township Clerk. The land register referred to is to be found at Detroit. For the bringing together of much of this information we are indebted to Mr. Louis Goulet."

D. W. Smith, Surveyor General of Canada, in a letter to John Askin of Detroit, dated July 26, 1792, made the following statement regarding the then boundaries of Kent County:

"It is said to contain all the country (not being territories of the Indians), and not already included in Essex and the several other counties described, extending northward to the boundary line of Hudson’s bay, including all the territory to the westward and southward of the said line to the utmost extent of the country called or known by the name Canada."

(Original letter in the Askin papers, Burton Collection, Detroit)

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